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Report Shows Drop in Acid Rain Deposition in New England and Rest of Country; New England Lakes and Streams Will Need Further Reductions to Recover

Release Date: 01/29/2003
Contact Information: Peyton Fleming, EPA Press Office, 617-918-1008

BOSTON - EPA New England Administrator Robert W. Varney today announced the release of a report that further documents the success of the agency's Acid Rain Program in reducing acid rain in New England and other sensitive ecosystems of the United States. The Acid Rain Program is the acclaimed market-based cap and trade program on which President Bush's Clear Skies proposal is modeled. Last night in his State of the Union Address, President Bush urged Congress to pass Clear Skies legislation.

"This study shows that market-based approaches to pollution control are working, but that challenges still lie ahead to restore New England's waters from the effects of acid rain," Varney said.

Varney said President Bush's plan will help achieve further reductions in acid rain emissions. As noted in his address last night, the President has proposed to significantly reduce power plant emissions – including sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides, the primary components of acid rain – by 70 percent over the next 15 years.

The most recent data, available in the report, confirm a large and widespread decrease in wet sulfate deposition (i.e., acidic precipitation) across broad areas of northern New England, the New York region and the Upper Midwest. The amount of wet sulfate deposited to lakes and streams nationally declined by approximately 40 percent in the 1990s, allowing significant reductions in the number of these systems affected by acid deposition. In New England, the decline was slightly lower at 30 percent. Regional declines in surface water sulfate can be directly linked to declines in emissions and deposition of sulfur that have occurred since the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments, which created EPA's Acid Rain Program.

EPA's Acid Rain Program has achieved more emission reductions at a faster pace and lower cost than originally expected. The 1990 law set a goal of reducing annual sulfur dioxide (SO2) emissions by approximately 50 percent below 1980 levels in 2010 to combat acid rain. In 2001, emissions of SO2 under the Acid Rain emissions trading program measured 10.6 million tons, already more than six and a half million tons below 1980 levels. The reductions to date represent 80 percent of the progress needed to reach the program's emission reductions goal.

EPA's Office of Research and Development, along with other collaborators, released the report, Response of Surface Water Chemistry to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990. EPA and its collaborators have conducted extensive monitoring and scientific assessment since 1990 to determine whether control measures have reduced levels of acidity in lakes and streams in five geographic areas, one being New England, which are most affected by acid rain. Data in New England came from nine deposition monitoring sites and two-dozen water sampling sites in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont and Massachusetts.

In three of the five areas, one-quarter to one-third of lakes and streams previously affected by acid rain are no longer acidic, although they are still highly sensitive to future changes in deposition. In other areas, signs of recovery are not yet evident, suggesting that further reductions such as those proposed in the Administration's Clear Skies proposal will further assist in ecosystem recovery. Highlights of the report show:

  • Eight percent of lakes in the Adirondacks are currently acidic, down from 13 percent in the early 1990s.
  • Fewer than one percent of lakes in the Upper Midwest are currently acidic, down from three percent in the early 1980s.
  • Nine percent of the stream length in the Northern Appalachian Plateau region is currently acidic, down from 12 percent in the early 1990s.

In New England, however, recovery rates have not been as strong. Despite declining deposition of sulfates to lakes and streams, the region has not seen a significant decrease in the number of acidic lakes and streams. The slow recovery may be partly due to New England's unique soil chemistry, which has not yet regained its ability to neutralize acidity.

"The important news is that sulfate levels are declining in New England," Varney said. "However, in order to give our lakes and streams the time they need to recover, we must ensure that sulfate and nitrate reductions continue. Some of the New England states have taken strong steps to reduce their power plant emissions. This report clearly demonstrates that national legislation is needed as soon as possible to reduce power plant emissions in upwind states. "

If enacted by Congress, the Clear Skies plan, once implemented, would further reduce and cap emissions of sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx ) and mercury from power generation by an additional 70 percent beyond year 2000 emission levels. The Clear Skies Act is a simple, straightforward plan that would utilize the proven, effective cap and trade approach to improve air quality across the country.

The study was conducted by Dr. John L. Stoddard, of EPA's Western Ecology Division at the National Health and Environmental Effects Research Laboratory, with collaborators from researchers at University of Maine, Syracuse University, Oregon State University, U.S. Geological Survey, University of Virginia, Pennsylvania State University, Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation, Adirondack Lake Survey Corporation, and EPA Office of Air and Radiation.

The full report is posted on EPA's Office of Research and Development Web page at http://www.epa.gov/ord and can be accessed by clicking on "research publications" and then by clicking on "air." A limited number of printed copies will soon be available from EPA's National Service Center for Environmental Publications (NSCEP). To obtain copies, please contact NSCEP at 1-800-490-9198 and reference EPA document number 620/R-03/001.

To learn more about acid rain in New England, visit the region's web site at http://www.epa.gov/region1/topics/air/acidrain.html.